Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Review: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann

Just a short review of this big, brilliant book—not only because I’m pressed for time but also because longer, better reviews of this book can be found elsewhere. Let the Great World Spin won both the National Book Award in the States and the International IMPAC Literary Award, and deservedly so. McCann has written rich, fragmentary tale focused on the twin themes of love and loss.

The interwoven tales within Let the Great World Spin coalesce around a real historical event: tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s improbable journey on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City one morning in 1974. McCann’s novel could almost pass for a hefty collection of interconnected short stories: each section of the book has its own protagonist whose life intersects with the novel’s other protagonists in startling ways, and each is related to or affected by Petit’s walk,  a stunt that really awakened the city to both its lost and future greatness.

McCann takes several risks in this book, chief among them killing off two pivotal and meticulously drawn characters early on in a horrendous car crash. How those deaths reverberate throughout the lives of the remaining characters provides much of Let the Great World Spin’s emotional heft. The tragedies that unfold are shadowed by the inevitable reality of what is to become of those twin buildings looming on New York’s skyline. 9/11 is only referred to in the book's coda, but the reader will bring that emotional baggage into the book from page one.

This is also a very thorough portrait of a New York that doesn’t really exist anymore. The city was in full decay in 1974, and McCann captures the rampant crime, drugs and danger that seemed to contaminate every street corner at the time. The city becomes a perfect mirror for the troubled lives of his characters.

A challenging but wonderful book, Let the Great World Spin has helped to establish McCann as A-list material in terms of New York’s current literary scene. I’ll definitely be pursuing more of his work in the future.  

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